Partner & Vice President, Retained Search and Advisory Services
Risks manifest in a variety of ways—some big, some small. Sometimes, taking a risk can be simply leaving one role for another. Other times, it could mean trying something revolutionary and seeing what happens. Taking risks can lead to big rewards with the right mix of data analysis, experimentation, trust and openness to leaning into opportunity.
However, risk is scary. As leaders, it’s our job to understand the business from all sides and be able to make strategic decisions that safeguard the business—but this does not mean avoiding all risks. The best leaders create an environment where innovation is encouraged and failure is accepted. Failure is an opportunity to learn. When this happens, risks begin to feel less risky and the path to potential outcomes becomes clearer.
Take Pfizer and Moderna, for example. Both companies took big risks in 2020. Moderna, in particular, tried something they had never done: taking a commercial drug to market. At the same time, Pfizer had never brought a vaccine to market this quickly in the company’s long history—in this case, in less than a year. Both companies could do this because their leadership believed in their ability to innovate and understood that failure was a possibility—that they were developing groundbreaking therapies that might not result in success.
I’m a big fan of Thomas Edison, who took his share of risks, with many failures along the way, but was steadfast and achieved great success. His wisdom sums up the work of Pfizer and Moderna quite well in this quote: “When I have fully decided that a result is worth getting, I go ahead of it and make trial after trial until it comes.” That’s exactly what these companies did. They learned from their trials and adapted as they went. These achievements were the result of many years and countless efforts with relentless persistence.
So what can we do as leaders to build a culture that sparks innovation?
Leaders need to have the conviction to make decisions and the humility to know when to change course. As a leader, you need to be willing to ask difficult questions, put yourself out there, admit your mistakes, learn and move forward. Your people will follow your example and the tone you set.
Your goal is to create a culture where people are comfortable sharing their perspective and insights, even when it’s not what leadership is hoping for or wants to hear. Creating a culture where people feel safe fosters a culture where the best ideas win.
You also need to empower your people. You will need to show them you trust them and have faith in their abilities—after all, you hired them for a reason. If you have created a trusting culture, human beings will do their best work. They will offer new perspectives and be willing to think and work outside of the box.
The first time your team does something out of the ordinary well, they will see the benefits of taking calculated risks and of going through the experimentation process to reach a goal. This will take your leadership to make it happen, as well as the right people on your team. If you can be that type of leader, this will become a competitive differentiator for your organization and will yield real rewards. Then the sky will be the limit of what you can accomplish.